A Plague of Mendacity:
A Plea for Truth, Trust, Altruism*

by Ihab Hassan

In this world of trickery, emptiness
Is what your soul wants.


        A specter is haunting the world: mendacity. None knows how to lay it to rest, least of all pundits and chatterati in sundry media. For Orwell's Newspeak has now mutated into a fluent anti-logos—call it Newspeak Nine after Vonnegut's lethal contagion of ice. The specter, specter or plague, which is the very shadow of globalization, seems to drive geopolitics as much as technology, oil, or money. That same plague of mendacity degrades the substance of our culture, our lives.

        Does truth have a chance? I will argue it does, but only if the world learns a measure of pragmatic altruism, if each of us learns some self-dispossession. A single step toward that "condition of complete simplicity," as Eliot put it in his Four Quartets, a condition "costing not less than everything," may set us on the right path. The condition itself remains a horizon, a kenotic ideal, harder to attain than dying. Yet it may clarify for us the issue of truth and lying in the most practical sense.


        My argument, philosophical at first, must lead through nihilism, through the metaphysical void. Gradually, I hope, the argument will move from metaphysics to a homemade world.

        The void first: it is unspeakable, its relation to language is nil. How speak of it then? Perhaps in winks and whispers, in parables and paradoxes. Perhaps by emptying ourselves out, drastically. Yes, the void is drastic: it threatens everything we seem to cherish about ourselves, about others. The abyss stares back and turns Medusa herself into Nothing, more final than stone. So why not leave the void alone? Why don't the great mystics ignore it? Why don't great writers? For instance, Emily Dickinson: "I am Nobody. Who are you?" Or Franz Kafka: "We are nihilistic thoughts that come into God's head." Why don't they avoid the void?

        Perhaps none of us really can. But perhaps writers and visionaries can sense there something visible, not to the eye of flesh but to the eye of fire, as Sufi say, the spiritual eye. Then, again, the void may have a lighter, even generative, side. When Leonardo's masterpiece—she of the sweet, twisted smile—vanished for a while from the Louvre in 1911 (stolen by one Vicenzo Perugia), thousands came to stare at the blank spot on the wall—thousands, including Kafka. The cunning and fascination of absence, its sustaining power: fort da! does take us forth. Emily Dickinson, our pert metaphysician again, went farther:

By lonely gift and hindered Words
The human heart is told
Of Nothing—
"Nothing" is the force
That renovates the World

        Nothing, the void, the abyss, kenosis, sunyatta, the cloud of unknowing, the mysterium tremendum et fascinans: they all cluster in the marrow and metaphor of some indefinable Reality, a force that renovates the World. Of course, it all depends on what you believe—or don't believe. Hence the need to confront nihilism.


        Despite its bad name, nihilism is of a noble lineage. It does not culminate with the jejune relativism of postmodernists. Think of it as the philosophical unconscious of our race. At best, it is a penultimate form of lucidity, the emptiness intellect traverses but spirit abhors. We are nihilistic thoughts that come into God's head, Kafka said, precisely because we introduce human reason into the mind of God. Reason is corrosive; it reduces the universe to rust. Nothing withstands its endless analysis, not even reason itself. Nothing, that is, except faith—faith founded on nothing. This paradox takes us further into nihilism.

        In its most vulgar sense, nihilism becomes a term of abuse or dismissal, though most often it denotes less an absence of values than values we disapprove. For cultures, on the whole, do not wish to be disturbed. They build their myths, religions, ideologies, build even their sciences, like mud walls, like straw screens against the blowing sand. The desert grows, Nietzsche cried more than a century ago, and still it grows. We can never stem or cross that desert once and for all.

        We have been plodding through wastelands for a long time in the West. From Job, who may have first felt the agony of nihilism in his boils and bones, through various medieval mystics, on to Pascal, through various Russian anarchists, so chillingly depicted in the novels of Dostoevsky and Turgenev, down to the ideas of Schopenhauer, Stirner, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Sartre, Camus, Jaspers, and Cioran, among many others, nihilism has stalked, sometimes haunted, the Western imagination. Max Stirner, we recall, had savaged all human values in Der Einzige und sein Eigenthum—translated as The Ego and His Own—and his successor, Nietzsche, had famously warned against looking too long into the abyss lest the abyss look back. Yet it was Nietzsche himself who plumbed the depths, announcing "what must inevitably come: the dawn of nihilism," before going mad.

        Nietzsche may have wrestled the angel of nihilism to madness, but his insights into the contingencies of faith remain, with Kierkegaard's, the most penetrating we have. Gradually, he says in The Gay Science, "man has become a fantastic animal," fantastic because he "has to believe." Furthermore, faith is most coveted and needed where the willpower, the affect of command, lacks. Hence fanaticism, the only strength that the weak or insecure can attain, seems a kind of hypnotism, a form of subjection to a stronger will. (Was he presaging our headlines?) Nietzsche ends by addressing his bludgeoned readers thus: "No, you know better than that, friends. The hidden Yes in you is stronger than all the Nos and Maybes that afflict you and your age like a disease; and when you have to embark on the sea, you emigrants, you, too, are compelled to this by—a faith."

        The f-word again, the "hidden Yes." Can we allow it in our lofty intellectual milieu? The word is inevitable, as is its double, nothing, the horror vacui. As Helmut Thielicke put in his searching work, Nihilism: "He who knows what faith is must also have stood beneath the baleful eye of that demonic power against which we fling our faith." Simply put, nihilism is the ground—or rather, the abyss—from which every radical assertion rises, every ineluctable Yes. Authority, truth, knowledge, consensus, need, may underwrite faith somehow, but the crucial element is the assent itself. Whence that vital, ontological assent? Is it the "will to power," the "will to believe," simply the rage to live? I do not know, I doubt anyone exactly knows. But I offer this—again paradoxical—guess: the assent finds its completion in self-dispossession, self-abnegation, self-disregard, self-emptying, kenosis. Call it simply altruism, if you wish, an altruism conducive to trust.

        I am not speaking of mystics only. I am speaking of artists, scientists, citizens. I am speaking of all truth, knowledge, or assent that is not mere tautology. We believe by virtue of the absurd, as Tertullian and Augustine, Kierkegaard and William James, variously knew. Ex nihilo, we consent. And that consent authorizes our world. But it will not authorize it well—think of all the dismal tyrannies since time began—unless trust and self-disregard, not just reciprocity but self-disregard on every side, the strong side as well as the weak, underwrite our consent. In short, truth and trust are compact in the kenotic, the altruistic, moment. This is the practical, not theological, matter we must now ponder, after glimpsing nihilism.


        What is truth, jesting Pilate said (according to Bacon) and would not stay for an answer. Of course, we no longer share an absolute, transcendent, or foundational Truth. But in daily life, we distinguish well enough between truth and falsehood, from little white lies to darker deceptions. It is repugnant to pretend that the atrophy of transcendent truths licenses self-deception or justifies tendentiousness—truth is not pravda.

        Truth is a single phoneme, but it carries the curse of miscellany, of sundry semantemes. There is traditional truth: what myth and tradition hold to have been always so. There is revealed truth: what a divine, sacred, or supernatural authority declares as true. There is the truth of power: what a tyrant proclaims, believe it or die. There is the truth of political or social or personal expediency: for the good for the party, for the good of the community, or for my own good, let it be so. There is truth as correspondence: in na´ve science and empiricism. There is the more sophisticated truth of scientific falsification: a theory is held true until disproven. There is truth as coherence: in the arts, especially music, in mathematics and logical systems. There is the truth of a poetic intuition: for instance, Yeats's quip that we "can refute Hegel but not the Saint or the Song of Sixpence." There is subjective truth: what you intensely feel or experience or desire becomes incontrovertibly so. There are probably other kinds of imbricated truths, and they all revert to some underlying axiom or belief.

        William James knew this nearly a century before Richard Rorty or Jacques Derrida. In Pragmatism, he acknowledges the fecund diversity of truth, a truth, he says "made, just as health, wealth, and strength are made, in the course of experience." But this is not an invitation to cynicism, self-interest, or ideological mendacity. For at the heart of James's own philosophical practice is an idea of trust: truth rests not on transcendence but on trust. This fiduciary principle is epistemic, ethical, and personal all at the same time, since our trust must also depend on another's trust, and our faith, James remarks in The Will To Believe, "is faith in someone else's faith, and in the greatest matters this is most the case." Hence the self-defeating character of radical relativism, of extreme particularism, which denies reciprocity, denies both empathy and obligation.

        Epistemic trust flows, in Western cultures at least, from evidence, logic, dispassion, trial, doubt—from intuitions and speculations, too, that can earn our unselfish assent. Altruism, like self-criticism, is conducive to trust. Such trust, I have said, is fragile. "How can one and the same identical fact experience itself so diversely?" James asks in A Pluralistic Universe. And in the end—I repeat, in the end—he answers that our "passional natures" must decide "between propositions, whenever it is a genuine option that cannot by its nature be decided on intellectual grounds." But these "passional natures," I wonder, have they no cognizance of broader restraint, a larger reference?

        The question reclaims maligned universals. Both social determinists and cultural constructionists find them anathema. Yet universals, not Platonic but empiric, abound. For instance: languages; human emotions; marks of status; ceremonies of birth, marriage, and death; gods, spirits, taboos and their rituals; not to mention sociobiological imperatives like the sixty-seven cross-cultural practices E. O. Wilson lists in Consilience. Human beings are not a terra nullius colonized by myriad systems of signs. Human beings also create themselves and recreate their environments, and chance and aeons of biological evolution help shape their lives. In sum, human beings not only vary infinitely; they also share a portion in the infinite.

        Pragmatic or "soft" universals need not alarm us; they enable both individual and collective judgments. Without them, the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights would vaporize; without them, Amnesty International would whistle in the wind; without them, jurists at the Hague would sit in an empty court; without them, Greenpeace or the Kyoto Protocols would founder in the Pacific. In short, without qualified generalizations, no appeal to reason, freedom, or justice can stand; no victim can find redress, no tyrant retribution.

        I am aware of the political arguments against Truth, against Universals (capitalized always in the minds of true believers as well as dogmatic skeptics). But I also recognize the will to truth, in certain human beings as implacable as the will to power. I have in mind sages and saints, great artists and scientists. Does not Oedipus embody, beyond a shady Freudian complex, that miraculous will to verity—what interest can his grim quest serve beyond self-knowledge?—at the cost of self-destruction, entailing blindness, bringing a deeper, luminous sight?

        Oedipus here is apt. Truth, I have said, rests on trust, personal, social, cognitive trust. But what is trust? Roundly, I repeat: more than consensus, more even than risk in reciprocity, trust depends on altruism, self-abnegation. It requires dispassion, empathy, attention to others and to the created world, to something not in ourselves. (Whom do we trust among strangers at a party, the one eager to impress and manipulate us, or the one genuinely and genially indifferent to anything we possess?) Ultimately, trust demands self-dispossession: Oedipus at Colonus! That is why truth and trust remain spiritual qualities—not simply psychological, not merely political, but above all spiritual values.


        Skeptics may ask: what about lying, is that spiritual too? I welcome the skepticism, defer the spiritual question, and turn to lying, including illusion, including art, forms of higher mendacity.

        I confess I do not know what lying is except in its trivial or banausic sense; its mystery may be as deep as mind itself. We know that Nietzsche, in his brilliant, early essay, "Of Truth and Lying in the Extra-Moral Sense," addressed the root mendacity of language itself. Since Paradise, words have been counterfactual—who has touched a dragon or unicorn? Language is an army of metaphors become rigid like those terracotta soldiers at Xian. Nietzsche's insight into language haunts him to the bitter end. "That for which we find words is something already dead in our hearts. There is always a kind of contempt in the act of speaking," he sneers in The Twilight of the Idols.

        The insight remains valid as far as it goes—and it goes far. These loose, slippery sounds—arbitrary signifiers, as every graduate student of literature has learned to say—sometimes seem, to the sophisticated or sophistical mind, a mirage, sand dunes drifting with every wind. How can you pitch in them a tent? Through these drifting, blowing sands, we stagger blindly, arms flailing—it's that desert again, and the desert grows.

        Well, let us flail away. Gestures may prevail where words fail. I mean, we are still speaking, stammering, gesticulating, communicating somehow. The truth (word intended) is, speakers create pragmatic constraints on language: in the blowing desert, mud walls, straw screens, canvas blinds, even a kaffiyeh, will serve. We speak, write, pray, curse, argue, expostulate—look up sometimes the endless synonyms of speech in a thesaurus—as indeed I do here. We even write on a board e=mc2 and two cities go up in flames. That is a peculiar fiction indeed: symbolism, language. Peculiar fiction or noetic force, we are stuck with it.

        But lying, I have said, may be a riddle deeper than language itself. It is a desperate cry against "what is the case" (Wittgenstein); it touches the primal human needs for self-preservation, yes, but also for self-creation, for illusion and art. Human kind, Old Possum famously said, "can not bear too much reality"—but how much unreality can human kind endure? Like Gatsby, we dream, and like a comet we trail "the foul dust of dreams." What illusions sustain life, which deny it? And how distinguish between illusion and lie, or one lie (Iago's) and another (Falstaff's)? Pragmatically, James would say, by its fruits; that is why his pragmatism feels ready to count mystical experiences if they have practical consequences, and would "take a God who lives in the very dirt of private fact—if that would seem a likely place to find him." Yet James himself knew that neither pragmatism nor any other philosophy can offer a logical principle, a universal criterion, to discriminate between too much and too little belief—or between belief, illusion, and lie. Between my belief and their lie.

        Consider the politically virtuous—forget the politically correct—whether of the left, the middle, or the right. They, we, all, denounce public mendacity, as we must. Yet we denounce it loudest when it adheres to another party, not ours. How many testify against themselves? How many tell truth, not only to power, as Edward Said demanded of intellectuals, but also to themselves, against themselves? The wisest Fool knows, in his self-heedlessness, how to undermine himself as well as his King. Again we meet it, that quality of self-disinterestedness, allowing us to see through folly and deceit—allowing us, also, to see beauty bare.


        That brings us, beyond illusion or mendacity, to art. Only as an aesthetic phenomenon is the world justified, Nietzsche had cried in The Birth of Tragedy. Susan Sontag outdoes the Philosopher of the Hammer: yes, she allows in Against Interpretation, the world may appear as an aesthetic phenomenon, but "justification" is quite another matter. How can the world, the cosmos, be justified? In fact, an arbitrary element inhabits art itself. And so, the "most potent elements in a work of art" often seem to us "its silences," Sontag suggests. Do not those silences scream throughout modern and postmodern literature?

        Moralists, ideologues, Platonists of every stripe, may have been right, after all, to protect themselves against art, its silences and absences, its abyssal visions, in a world ultimately justifiable only by an act of faith or grace. Even Nietzsche, in a later work, gave up on aesthetic justification: in The Gay Science, he argues that the world must be born, not justified. Endurance, laughter, grief, the "ancient glittering eyes" (Yeats) of wisdom, and Dionysian self-abandon—these remain. But they are suspect to critics who shrink from Homer's violence and Shakespeare's sinister passions, abhor Kierkegaard's Knight of Faith (that would-be murderer, Abraham), and understand Kafka simply as critic of bureaucracy or prophet against the totalitarian state.

        Where, then, does art stand? Nowhere, I think. Art may be the "lie that makes us realize the truth," as Picasso put it, echoing the chorus of artists through the ages, but that is because it takes us out of ourselves: for a moment and as long as it lasts, art summons us to self-forgetfulness. It is the condition Kant chose to describe as "disinterestedness," and Nietzsche, habitually extreme, as "Dionysian." Where could art stand but on the abyss? That does not imply art and illusion lack social functions—even lying has its uses.

        Art and certain types of illusion do fit the category of estimable, life-enhancing mendacity, a category Oscar Wilde playfully stretched, notably in his essays on "The Decay of Lying" and "The Truth of Masks." Wilde's witty argument, a provocation to the leaden naturalism, realism, and positivism of his age, amounts to a plea for imagination, magic, artifice, and of course art for art's sake. Oxymoron rules his style with an iron fist in silken glove. But the attitude of disinterest emerges at every turn of phrase: "The only beautiful things...are the things that do not concern us.... It is exactly because Hecuba is nothing to us that her sorrows are such an admirable motive for tragedy." Whatever else beauty may be—beauty in art, beauty in lying, beauty in a woman—it lacks all practical motives, Wilde believes.

        Wanting nothing from us, does beauty also dispense with admiration? Would Narcissus have loved Echo had she loved not him but his image? I have no enthusiasm for Wilde's tacit sophistries, but I value his negative capability, his patience with art. For I recognize there the seed of self-disregard, which points to truth from afar. I see there, furthermore, the truth of masks.

        Again, Wilde's essay on masks argues for the power of illusion, concealment, costumes. But only at the very end does he strike a new, enigmatic note. Commenting on his own essay, he writes:

There is much with which I entirely disagree. The essay simply represents an artistic standpoint, and in aesthetic criticism attitude is everything. For in art there is no such thing as a universal truth. A truth in art is that whose contradictory is also true. And just as it is only in art-criticism, and through it, that we can apprehend the Platonic theory of ideas, so it is only in art-criticism, and through it, that we can realize Hegel's system of contraries. The truths of metaphysics are the truths of masks.

I think Wilde sacrifices too much here to the spirit of contradiction. But the last sentence intrigues me: it could serve as theme to the essay Wilde never wrote.

        The truths of metaphysics may be the truths of Hegelian contraries, which masks evoke. But the truth of masks does not end with "contradiction" between face and mask. I have seen a beautiful woman don a black Venetian mask, tinsel and satin, hinting a vulpine shape: the face vanished, the eyes, once violet, became glinting, obsidian holes. The truth of masks? It is the truth of self-suppression, self-dissolution. More, the truth of nothingness: behind tinsel and satin, I glimpsed not a fox but the void.

        Wilde did not say it, but had he felt less compelled to pose as the scandalous aesthete, he might have sensed that the truth of art, like the truth of masks, issues from some place deeper than aesthetic detachment. And he might have approved John Cage when the latter declares in Silence: "If there were a part of life dark enough to keep out of it a light from art, I would want to be in that darkness...."


        Should we regain the light, ravel our themes, rejoin worldly things? In human affairs, in the tangle and texture of our social existence, duplicity is the mask with a thousand faces. The Internet lies, politicians lie, criminals lie, lovers lie, scientists and scholars and journalists lie, we all lie. Why? Fear, weakness, spite, vanity, thrill, profit, a perverse sense of freedom, so many more motives; yet almost always, we lie for advantage in the labyrinths of self-interest. I recognize, of course, the existence of altruistic lying (Sissela Bok's Lying), autobiographical lying (Timothy Dow Adam's Telling Lies), legal lying (Peter Brooks' Troubling Confessions), pathological lying (Marcel Eck's Lies and Truth), and other kinds that only touch tangentially the inexorable self-regard of the human animal. But ego remains nearly always at the adamantine core. What chance has truth? What remedy to mendacity? These are worldly queries.

        The concern is real because mendacity has embedded itself in the fabric of American society, breeding personal cynicism and civic distrust. Why the chicanery, cheating, plagiarism, arrant partisanship, runaway self-interest? (Indeed, we contribute more to charities, communities, foundations, than most nations, yet the point stands.) Why? Is it because postmodernism is thought to have eroded the basis of truth and postcolonialism relativized all cultural values? Is it because the vaunted entrepreneurialism of America, not to mention its sanctified greed, has subjected all principles to the imperatives of the market place? (A church, a hospital, an army, a prison, a university, a family is hardly a business in the same sense that Microsoft is.) Is it because the triumph of ideology—within and without the academy—and the power of special interests have attenuated the prestige, the very concept, of a common good? Has the pursuit of happiness become the pursuit of self-entitlement and unconditional rights? Or is the predicament of truth due to the inherent diversity, dynamism, inventiveness, and, yes, energy of illusion in American life?

        Countless treatises have engaged these issues, and many more issues than I can cite here. My point is simply that the idea of truth itself is in discount; fudging in ways small and large, has become acceptable, if not yet legitimate or routine. This truth, never absolute or transcendental, can only rest—that has been my thesis from the start—on trust, which itself rests on altruism, dispassion, a sense of kenotic self-heedlessness: kenotic and self-heedless precisely because it knows both the void underlying all things and the interconnectedness of all things.

        Charles Johnson's Turning the Wheel: Essays on Buddhism and Writing is exemplary here. The Afro-American polymath seeks in Buddhism a persuasive way to combine his literary, political, and philosophical aims. For him, as for W. E. B. Dubois and Martin Luther King, the overriding question is: how does a descendant of chattel slaves attain genuine freedom in America, and what kind of freedom is that? Johnson's personal answer is the Buddharma, "the most revolutionary and civilized of human choices," which unites "the spirit of metta [compassion] toward all sentient beings," with an intuition of sunyatta [emptiness], signifying both nothingness and plenitude.

        Buddhism may be, for Johnson, a personal choice, a way of negotiating literary and political claims on his life, and of translating "the Dharma into specific acts of social responsibility." But the choice is not eccentric: Johnson stands firmly in the tradition of Jean Toomer and Martin Luther King who recognized that all life is interrelated. "We are in an inescapable network of mutuality," King said, "tied in a single garment of destiny." Call it Karma.


        It may be that the views regarding truth, trust, altruism, self-dispossession, expressed in these pages, are incorrigibly utopian; that interest and partisanship will continue to rule politics; that civilization, if not built on the shambles, thrives on the interplay of forces to which kenotic virtues remain entirely marginal. History, then, far from "ending" in any real or metaphorical way, will continue to play itself out according to social and epigenetic rules developed through millions of years of biological evolution—or until genetic engineering intervenes. Better—so realists would say—to heed the arguments deployed by historians such as Samuel P. Huntington and Niall Fergusson.

        But there is another way to construe the place and function of utopian ideas in our time, the call to truth, the claim of altruism, the recognition of our "single garment of destiny." There is another way to understand even the void which—whatever else it may be for Gautama or Lao Tzu, for Schopenhauer or Nietzsche—grounds the wisdom of self-dispossession, the sagacity of universal compassion. These ideas exert a constant pressure on reality. We honor them even in the breach, honor them implicitly in the forms propaganda takes, in the deceptions of individuals and hypocrisies of nations—else why would any lie? And occasionally, we acknowledge them in geopolitical debates, about genocide say, in declarations of universal rights and humanitarian aid, in the charters of international institutions. Such ideas influence, however erratically, the shape of events, the course of history.

        The history of the twentieth century may not be as good as things will ever get. A sustained exercise of spiritual faculties may widen human sympathies, and coax out of chaos the rudiments of a civility without borders. For this, truth; for this, trust and altruism; for this, paradoxically, an intuition of the void, may be required.

N. B. Different versions of this essay have appeared in Cream City Review 28, 2 (Fall 2004); and in An A B C of Lying, ed. Livio Dobrez, Melbourne: Scholarly Publications, 2004.

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